War and peace sized novels could be written about Tokyo, but I’ll try to be brief here and refrain from too much touristic enthusiasm.

Living in London for more than 10 years I saw a lot of the city, but by no means everything, so with only a week in Tokyo, getting to grips with this vast city would be a challenge. More than anywhere else I visited in Japan, this city, the largest metropolitan area in the world and home to some 37 million people, left me wondering and questioning. The pace of life in Tokyo is fast, in fact to me it felt like twice the pace of life in London. You get the sense that people walk fast because their every movement, their every step, has been timed precisely for efficiency. Directions in Tokyo can be timed to the minute and if you slow down you run the risk of getting knocked down.

View over Tokyo.
View over Tokyo.

A calm metro.

Everything in Tokyo is very considered, right down to the most minute detail. From handrails for the blind to the sounds emitted by traffic lights, from pavements to public transport. For me, the metro was a source of wonder, in fact two things puzzled me more than anything for a few days; the ambient whistling sounds on the platforms and the “women only” carriages. The first one is impossible to ignore as the sounds seep into your ears when you enter the metro. The simplest explanation I could think of for the playing of the gentle cuckoo sounds was to create a calming atmosphere for passengers to zone while they travel to work.

The birdsong is actually played here, and at traffic lights, to assist visually impaired people. Speakers are installed nearby to staircases or escalators to help people find the entrance/exit. Just like the Moscow metro uses male and female announcers to differentiate the train’s direction, some stations in Tokyo play a different bird song for the up and down the escalator, for example the Keisei which plays either a cuckoo or bunting song. The sound of flowing water directs people to toilets and a more noticeable pin-pong sound indicates where the ticket gates are.

Despite the population size not all the commuter trains are so densely packed that people have to push in like sardines in a can, or as the Japanese say ‘packed sushi’. In fact I didn’t see anybody pushing, but maybe this only happens at peak times on the very busiest lines. However, being crammed in like sardines in a can has become an issue for females in Japan, as some men take advantage of the situation and commit what’s considered a sex crime in Japan — groping.

Girl in pink shoes. People here have an amazing ability to fall in to the digital world, regardless of age or gender.
Girl in pink shoes. People here have an amazing ability to fall in to the digital world, regardless of age or gender.

According to a survey, two-thirds of female passengers in their 20s and 30s are reported to have fallen foul of groping on trains, with the majority having been a victim more than once. With the trains too crowded for the authorities to identify the culprits, an alternative solution had to be found. A ‘Women Only’ carriage was introduced, on which only women can travel during specific busy hours. Virtually all trains have a pinkish ‘Women Only’ car attached to them. Outside of the designated hours men can also use these carriages.

Just like I saw in Taiwan and South Korea, no one here pushes in front of you, everyone queues up politely, following the directions on the platform in front of the train. On the subject of Japanese trains, it’s worth mentioning that the ‘shoes-off’ tradition works here too. Japanese kids are taught to take their shoes off before they using the seat on the train. Maybe people from other countries should consider teaching their children the same?

Despite the hectic, planned-by-the-minute style of life here, patience is a primary attribute of the average Japanese person. Social ads and signs around public places urge people to remain quiet, calm and to refrain from using their phones (wonder what happens in an emergency). In London, frustration and anger in public spaces like the tube is a regular occurrence. But despite the volume of people here, it’s hard to spot any angry, loud or aggressive citizens, it seems that no one here argues, swears or fights.

Japanese put their aggression into sport.

Despite the calmness and passivity found here, Japan’s heritage is filled with fighting sports like sumo, judo, karate and kendō. Sumo is considered the oldest martial art form in Japan, the game of two men trying to push each other to the ground or out of the ring, is now a national sport. Sumo wrestlers start their intensive training regime at the age of 15 or 16, when they go to live and train at a so-called sumo stable (training quarters). At the stable, a sumo wrestler’s early life there can be equated to that of a prison inmate. Initially, they have to start as a servant to the others before climbing up the ranks, some even say that lower ranked wrestlers are forced to wipe the butts of their higher ranked counterparts. It’s only upon reaching the higher ranks that sumo wrestlers begin earning a salary and are granted privileges, like owning a mobile phone.

A sumo wrestler’s typical day usually involves sleeping, training and eating. While in most sports participants work hard to reduce their body weight, sumo wrestlers do the opposite. Beginners who come to a stable with insufficient weight can be suspended from training until they gain sufficient mass. They wake up and train without having breakfast and at lunch time they eat to the point of nausea. This is followed by a long sleep to give the calories time to settle. Eventually, the wrestlers become huge, but what at first may appear to be fat is not necessarily, because on average a wrestler’s body fat percentage is only 20% (the average person has 10%), the rest is pure muscle.

Sumo is not the kind of sport where success and career progression is gained by training for a few hours a day and then heading home. Sumo is a way of life that starts from a young age at the stables — they live here, train here and dedicate their life to sumo.

The dohyō, sumo wrestling circle, is made of rice-straw bales 4.55 meters in diameter, mounted on a square platform of clay 6.7m, and 34 to 60 cm high. The surface is covered by sand. Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Hall.

When I was in Tokyo a sumo championship was taking place at the Sumo Hall and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see the sport in action. What interested me from the start was the sport’s connection with Shinto ritual. It was performed at shrines to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami, which is why they throw salt before the start of a fight. The funniest thing is that the ceremonial preparation takes much longer than the actual bout itself.

Don’t speak English.

Japan is a self-sufficient country and generally the Japanese don’t feel the need to study or work abroad, those who do leave usually return in the end. Regardless of the huge English-teaching expat society in Japan, foreign languages aren’t an important subject and are taught in school for only 6 years. Which is somewhat paradoxical considering almost every single white person I met in Japan or South Korea was an English teacher. I was told that Japanese students are usually discouraged from speaking up in the classroom, when, particularly for language learning, participation is extremely important. This could also be a result of the “shame based” culture in Japan, whereby many people have an intense fear of making mistakes or being embarrassed in front of others. These things contribute to making Japan very closed off to other languages. However seeing the latin alphabet here is not a rarity, in fact it can be seen very much in city centres.

Industrialised Japan.

The lingua franca barrier has not prevented the Japanese from developing to extremely high levels, both economically and socially. In the context of Westernisation, Japan can be considered the only Asian country that experienced social development during its period of industrialisation, while other countries were solely industrialising. In Japan, industrialisation began in the 19th century, in line with the West and its participation in World War II also firmly linked it to the West. Today, practically all of modern Japan is a Japanese-Western cultural fusion, from the government structure to the way companies are run.

Marunouchi MY PLAZA, Tokyo International Forum district.
Marunouchi MY PLAZA, Tokyo International Forum district.

Compared to Western homes, like those in England for example, Japanese homes are tiny. The average size of a house or apartment for a family of four is around 75 to 90 square meters. As a consumer-based society, these small houses can end up cluttered with stuff, often mirrored or bamboo decorated cabinets with sliding doors conceal boxes and baskets stuffed full of things. Forget about the Zen-like calm Japanese interior that you may have envisioned, based on places I stopped at during my trip these only exists in temples, or the homes of really disciplined people.

The view from the observation deck on the 45th floor was breathtaking. These unique perspectives of Tokyo were spectacular, revealing the metropolis in all its grandness. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
The view from the observation deck on the 45th floor was breathtaking. These unique perspectives of Tokyo were spectacular, revealing the metropolis in all its grandness. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Hardworking or not?

There is a belief that Japanese people are very hardworking, but in reality it’s not so straightforward. It’s true that Japanese culture instills a value system comprised of pride, respect, and honour. Japanese workers often have a strong sense of pride in their work and respect for their superiors. Their mindset seems to be far more community based, a sort of collectivism, and they are willing to work themselves to the bone to prove their loyalty to their company. It might not be by choice, but the pressure to keep the collective harmony maintains what appears to the outside as a ‘hard work‘ ethos.

Most people work hard, or pretend to work hard, and don’t take holidays because they are scared to be seen as lazy by their colleagues as a result of the group mentality. It’s like they are afraid of being excluded from the 'club of workaholics' where taking holidays, a right protected by law, is seen as a reason to be excluded from it.

In western culture it’s the opposite, where a source of pride is more likely to be about ‘yourself’ and not your ‘work’. People are brought up to believe they are ‘special’ and ‘unique’. There’s no need for emotional attachment or for lip-service to the boss, and if the lottery is won, the employee’s notice will be winging its way from Bali via Airmail.

Man looking at nude pictures in the Nikon gallery.
Man looking at nude pictures in the Nikon gallery.

I’ve written before about the pressure to go out drinking with the boss in South Korea. Where corporate culture pervades everything. Why? Because it’s profitable. It forces people to work longer hours than specified, i.e. based on a contract the working day is 9—6 but you are sweating blood from 7 to midnight. In return you get corporate parties as a thank you, where the boss and his minions swallow spirits and howl about how ‘We Are One Family‘. But as soon as times get tough, it’s sorry buddy, family is family but business is business. By the way the idea of ‘one family’ can actually be traced back to the fascists, first in Italy and then Germany.

In contrast, some people believe that the Japanese are not as super hardworking as it first seems. They think that many people confuse the super long hours the average Japanese salaryman works for hard-work, when actually many of those long hours are worthless (dead time). Dead time is the time when the boss is still at the office (leaving before him is a no-no) so workers catch up on sleep, read books, have chats, get over their hangover from last night’s party.